Various apt descriptive terms could be applied to Hitman: Absolution : Gritty, atmospheric, visceral, edgy, and intense, just to name a few. The mechanics and AI are flawed to a certain extent but in general, you find the adventure drawing you in, keeping you riveted, and rewarding your effort with a palpable feeling of satisfaction and even triumph. The story is a little off and sometimes the grittiness trips over the line into just plain disgusting but in general, the new Hitman succeeds on the strength of its vivacity and punch.
The developers have clearly worked very hard to implement a series of hard-hitting locales and areas, because you’re typically glancing around, drinking in your surroundings and choking on the accumulated crud in your throat. That’s the point, of course. From drug dens to bars to mine shafts and just about everything in between, we dive into a nasty yet memorable underworld. The detailing isn’t too spectacular – there’s a starkness and blandness that I find disconcerting – and some of the effects are a little drab, but the muck, murk, and slime of humanity make for a fitting and oddly alluring visual presentation. Just so dark on a number of levels.
Thanks to a fantastic voice cast and a great set of audio effects, Absolution understands the necessity of effective sound. In addition to the aforementioned immersive environment, a well put-together soundtrack and a horde of ambient effects gives each area its very own – and palpable – feel. There’s some balancing issues between the music, effects and voices but that’s minor, and the combined impact on the player is more than satisfactory. It’s not technically perfect but much like the graphics, the audio does the job. We are in a very unpleasant universe and yet, we’re sorta lovin’ it, you know? It's just so captivating.
From the start, one senses the obvious stark contrast between Agent 47’s button-down slickness and style, and the horrendous filth with which he must deal. It’s not just his targets that are slimy and terribly repulsive in every possible way; just about everyone that is against Agent 47 is some sort of horrible creature. That right there is what makes for an interesting clash: The well-dressed, almost dapper assassin versus the lurching, drooling hordes of humans that barely classify as such. As time goes on, you begin to accept that the protagonist is simply a superior being.
And that’s precisely the kind of hero I want to see in my fantastical interactive games. I’m tired of the anti-hero, the conflicted guy with a dark past, the heroic or the virtuous or the charismatically boastful; Agent 47 doesn’t apologize for anything and when he’s branded as a traitor, he goes about the process of survival and revenge with the same cold, business-like attitude. The main bad dude, a depraved, amoral pig of a man named Blake Dexter, surrounded by his minions of sh**, is almost too over-the-top, to the point where they sometimes become caricatures of themselves.
But I like that. If you’re going to go all the way, do so and don’t hold back. Yeah, those Saints are here (the sexy nuns in that controversial trailer) and they want you dead because a lot of people want you dead. But if you think scantily clad women with very large guns are all you have to worry about, think again. And the best part is that fans of previous entries will indeed feel right at home, which is the second most important thing next to that compelling atmosphere. You start a mission with a particular objective and there are various ways of going about achieving that objective. This sort of freedom encourages you to experiment…
There are items and objects all over the place that could prove useful. If you have no interest in hiding and sneaking, there are gas tanks that go boom. If you’d rather embrace the role of a true shadowy assassin, there are bricks to throw to create distractions and even uniforms to wear to walk about without fear of exposure. Looking around for useful tools is part of the fun, and it’s usually beneficial to hang back and scope things out before proceeding. Depending on the size and design of the level in question, you often have to approach different objectives in different ways, and I appreciate that. I'm sure others will as well.
The control is mostly stable and reliable, although there are times when I wished it was a touch more responsive. I also wish the game wasn’t quite as forgiving as it is; in a stealth-oriented game, I’d want mistakes to be punished. In other words, if I’m discovered I want to be faced with a particularly hairy situation, one from which I may not emerge alive. But Agent 47 is a pretty big bad-ass and he doesn’t die easily. Besides, you can haul around a significant arsenal and as such, the game can be played as a third-person shooter if you so desire. The good news, however, is that this really isn’t advisable.
On the downside, your enemies simply aren’t very bright and sometimes you feel as if things are just totally unfair. These dudes are all brain-dead and I’m this super-skilled super-cool, super assassin…hence, I have no fear. That’s great and all and as I said above, I love me a really awesome hero, but AI that easily loses track of you detracts from the fun. It’s a little funny to see your freaked-out foes unloading on your previous position, even though it must’ve been painfully obvious that you’ve moved. However, if things get down and dirty, you can always resort to melee or point shots; the latter gives us some slo-mo goodness that’s just too appealing.
I’m not the biggest fan of the melee system and collision detection appeared to be an issue during some hectic gunfights but overall, this is a well-designed and mostly accessible set of mechanics. Sneaking, taking cover, aiming and firing; it all works quite nicely throughout, with only a few minor hiccups. As for the campaign length, you can expect 8-10 hours depending on your gameplay preference, and there are a few extras to enjoy. But perhaps the best way of elongating your Hitman experience is to participate in the Contract creation. This adds a twist on standard multiplayer or co-op styles and encourages imagination.
Hitman: Absolution may err too often on the side of extra gritty, and the lackluster AI and merely average story make the adventure less stimulating than it could’ve been. But the stealth is here; you are rewarded for being patient, timely and tactful. The set pieces are fantastic, the audio features some of the best highlights you’ll hear this year, and there’s plenty of player choice/freedom available in most missions. The difficulty is just about right (even though Agent 47 is a little too resilient, in my opinion) and fans of the series should be happy. Making and sharing Contracts is another big bonus, so you might want to add this to your holiday wish list.
The Good: Excellent in-your-face atmosphere. Great effects and voices. The stealthy will be rewarded. Agent 47 is a bona fide bad-ass. Solid control. Contracts add unique longevity.
The Bad: AI is definitely lacking. Story isn’t all that impressive. Not as punishing as some stealth-based titles.
The Ugly: “Dude…what are you shooting at?”